Julian Marquez doesn't
need a joystick to unleash a punch or a kick. His karate
skills aren't tied to a game console and TV screen.
The 12-year-old Costa Mesa resident is a student in the
Costa Mesa-based Walking Tall Foundation. The foundation was
formed in 1993 by sixth-degree black belt Joaquin Sahagun as
a nonprofit organization to teach karate to children at a
"It's fun. It's hard
and fun at the same time. They push you," Julian said.
wanted to offer instruction at no cost, but he later
realized kids would show more dedication if their families
had to pay a fee. The program's fee structure starts at $50
a month, but actual payments can be adjusted along a sliding
scale, said instructor Gina Sahagun, who is married to
"We work with each
individual family," she said. "A single woman trying to
raise her kids, they get first priority for a full
The program does not
receive direct government aid, Gina Sahagun said. Walking
Tall is financed by fundraisers like Costa Mesa's fireworks
sales program, and Joaquin Sahagun said he is planning to
raise funds through karate tournaments in case fireworks are
ever banned in the city.
Julian has been in the
program for about eight months and at a recent practice,
demonstrated what he called an iron-body set. The set is a
series of moves where the young student performed a variety
of somersaults, tumbles and butterfly kicks. When he
executed a butterfly kick, Julian leapt to the air, tilted
his head and body forward and spun both legs behind him.
Sahagun, Joaquin's son, teaches Walking Tall students and
looked on as Julian demonstrated his skills. The tumbling
techniques are essential to the series that Julian
completed, Philip Sahagun explained. He said kids who study
the moves can learn to avoid getting hurt if they fall while
riding a skateboard or scooter.
"It's to condition the
kids to getting used to taking hits, blows and falls,"
Philip Sahagun said.
Or as Julian put it,
"You break your fall so it doesn't hurt. But it looks like
Julian and the other
Walking Tall students practice in a 15,000-square-foot gym
on Grace Lane. In mid-July, the Walking Tall Foundation and
the Sahaguns' for-profit venture, South Coast Martial Arts,
moved from their original home on Harbor Boulevard to its
new locale, where swords and other weapons line the walls.
In the foundation's
new digs, exercise equipment takes up the west end of the
building, and Walking Tall students practice on blue mats on
the east end. Several punching bags are set up in the
middle, and in the evening, adults come to practice
kickboxing. The sounds of hands and feet pummeling the bags
fill the air while some of the youngsters continue to train.
The students at
Walking Tall study kenpo karate, which according to
www.all-karate.com, is a discipline popular in the United
States that uses hand and foot techniques in equal measure.
Karate itself does not include the study of weapons.
However, Walking Tall's program includes the study of 19
weapons, such as the staff, nunchaku and katana.
Tyler Connors, 9, and
Stanley Johnson, 10, are two students who work with weapons.
Stanley, who lives in Santa Ana, said he chose the staff
because it's practical. If he is ever attacked, he said, he
might be able to use a common object like a broom to defend
"You wouldn't carry a
sword or nunchaku," he said.
Showing what they have
learned, Stanley planted one end of the staff on a practice
map and used his momentum to turn a cartwheel. Tyler, a
Costa Mesa resident, twirled the weapon quickly in front of
him using a series of what he called forward spins and
Tyler's mother, Cindy
Connors, said she thinks her son's experience has taught him
more than martial arts. She said Tyler has become more
focused and confident since he joined the program.
"He loves karate so he
really enjoys this," she said. "This is a great atmosphere.
If you ever hang around here, there's always kids around."
In addition to Walking
Tall, Philip Sahagun also teaches South Coast Martial Art's
Jao Qin weapon classes. Philip Sahagun said the gym has 30
weapon varieties on hand, though some, such as the bull
whip, are too dangerous for kids.
However, the bull whip
is Philip Sahagun's specialty. On the gym's stage, he
demonstrated a series of moves with the whip and another set
with the straight sword. The whip was hardly visible as the
weapon swung and cracked through the air. At one point in
his demonstration, he finished one series of moves by
wrapping the weapon around his body before moving on to the
AND MORE TRAINING
About 30 Walking Tall
students also perform on stage as members of the group's
demonstration team, Philip Sahagun said. The team performed
at the Orange County Fair in July, and last week members
were preparing for a show on Saturday. For the demonstration
team, one of the benefits of the new gym is that its higher
ceilings make it easier for team members to practice aerial
As one would expect,
being a member of the demonstration team means having to
spend more time at practice.
"Some of them train
six days a week," Philip Sahagun said.
Like her older brother
Philip, Nicole Sahagun, 15, has grown up surrounded by the
martial arts. Their father has about 30 years of kenpo
karate experience and their mother, Gina Sahagun, is a
kickboxing instructor at the gym. Nicole said she heads
straight to the gym after finishing classes at school and
has a computer upstairs to do her homework when she's not
As far as weapons go,
Nicole's specialty is the fan. Demonstrating the weapons,
she held one fan in each hand and executed a series of moves
that, like her brother's demonstrations, resembled a cross
between a break-dancing routing and a fight. The paper and
wood folding fans popped loudly as Nicole opened the weapons
during the routine.
"I've been doing this
for maybe four years, and let me tell you, I've gotten a lot
better," Nicole said.
Compared with the
sword and the whip her brother wielded, Nicole's fans are
not obvious weapons at first glance. Part of the reason is
that she used the practice variety during her demonstration.
Afterward, she showed the combat version, which uses spiked
pieces of iron instead of wood.
EMPHASIZING THE MENTAL
and fitness are core objectives of martial arts training,
but Joaquin Sahagun said he wants students to learn mental
discipline as much as physical techniques.
"If a kid wants to
come here to learn how to fight so he can beat up his
friend, he's not going to be here very long," Joaquin
Joaquin Sahagun, who
grew up in South Los Angeles and started studying karate
when he was 24 years old, talks up the less obvious benefits
of the class. Kids who can learn to pay attention to a
martial arts instructor can learn to be better listeners in
the classroom, he says.
Another part of his
philosophy is that a youngster who gains confidence through
martial arts will be better equipped to resist the
temptations of drugs and alcohol. He said he does not allow
adults to smoke or drink around kids at Walking Tall events
and believes that someone who has self-defense skills will
not feel threatened by others who use drugs or feel
pressured to try drugs in order to look tough.
"It gives the kids
more courage to stay the course or be their own person,"
Joaquin Sahagun said. "Some people think I'm creating a
bunch of killers, but it's the mental skills."
After eight months
with Walking Tall, Julian said he has learned that having
confidence is an important part of the program. He said
believing he can learn a technique is one of the most
important parts of success.
"You can't be scared.
You have to be 100% sure that you can do it," Julian said.